Friday, October 28, 2011

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn/Keeping Silent

A pair of mystery novels this time, both featuring deaf characters ~

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn
by Colin Dexter


This is an Inspector Morse mystery, better known for the BBC TV adaptation. The setting is the Foreign Examination Board at Oxford University. In a tiny corner of academia, a select few scholars toil away to create the A level and O level exams to be taken by foreign students seeking admission to British universities. It's a rarified, secretive little world, somewhat disrupted by the recent, controversial hiring of Nicholas Quinn, who is partially deaf. When he is discovered dead, poisoned at home, it's up to Inspector Morse and his assistant Lewis to solve the crime.

Now knowing that the deaf character is the one murdered, one can tell from the outset this isn't going to be a great piece of dev-friendly fiction. But in fact it takes quite a while for the murder to happen; he does get some interesting scenes and character development. My bigger problem with this book (written in 1977) is the dated attitudes towards disability, and toward women. The opening scene where they discuss whom to hire is just painful, and what's worse, the narrator seems to share the prejudiced attitudes of the characters. They worry that Quinn won't be able to function effectively in the office, and in fact, he doesn't. It's never explained how or when he lost his hearing, although it seems to be recent and getting worse. He is a genius at lipreading (of course) but lacks any other coping skills. Women are treated even worse, dismissed immediately as frumpy, clueless matrons or shameless tarts undeserving of consideration.

The mystery is of a very old fashioned sort, basically it boils down to solving the puzzle of who was where at what time. And of course Quinn's lipreading figures into all of it, so once again his disability is really more of a plot device than any sort of character development.

This story was adapted for TV, although Devo Girl has not watched it yet.

UPDATE: Devo Girl has now watched the BBC adaptation. In some ways, it's better than the book because it leaves out the nasty sexism etc. But Quinn is killed right at the beginning, he's only in the opening scene, so devo appeal is pretty much zero.

It also seems that the author based this book partially on his real life. He was forced to quit teaching because he started losing his hearing, then took up a job writing exams for Oxford, like in the book. I'm sure he experienced the kind of blatant discrimination Quinn suffers in the book, but it's a bit disappointing Quinn isn't portrayed more positively or given more character development.

Keeping Silent
by Carla Damron


This is a very different kind of mystery, one that hinges on human relationships rather than puzzle-solving. The main character, Caleb Knowles, is a social worker, a sensitive guy, not the usual hard-bitten professional detective.

Caleb's older brother Sam has been deaf since a motorcycle accident at age sixteen. He's also an accomplished sculptor. The story begins when Sam's fiancee Anne, also deaf, is found bludgeoned to death at their home with one of Sam's sculptures. Since he was home at the time, Sam is the prime suspect. In shock, Sam shuts down emotionally and won't cooperate with the investigation, so it's up to Caleb to try to solve the mystery and clear his brother, while still maintaining his caseload and keep his clients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression from sinking into drug addiction or suicide.

The depiction of deafness in this book is much more realistic. Sam can read lips and speak, but he prefers to use ASL, which Caleb also knows. He does get some interesting character development, as does Anne, who was congenitally deaf and did not speak. The one thing that really bothered me is that part of the mystery supposedly hinges on the fact that Anne is found with her hands making the ASL sign for NO. How is that even possible? Wouldn't the hands instantly relax at the moment of death? The depiction of mental illness in Caleb's clients, though, is very keenly observed and realistic.

Still, dev appeal for me was only moderate. Sam is very handsome and appealing, but because he remains so emotionally closed off, he remains a secondary character. There are several more novels by the same author, in which Caleb and Sam team up to solve more murders, that might be worth checking out.

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